In Mosul, Shia militias go from liberators from the Islamic State to occupying force
The groups finance themselves via fuel smuggling, extortion and a slice of government funds. One engineer complains of paying a 15 per cent of his earnings to the militias compared to 10 per cent to the Islamic State. Pro-Iranian militia names a school after Ayatollah Khomeini.
Mosul (AsiaNews) – For years, Mosul was the capital the “Caliphate” set up by the Islamic State group, during which it sowed terror, violence and bloodshed. Now another threat looms over the city, namely pro-Iranian Shia militias who freed the city along with the Iraqi army.
Welcomed initially as liberators, the militias are now seen as an occupying force in a predominantly Sunni Muslim city.
Cars forming long queues in front of petrol stations in an oil-producing country that suffers from petrol shortages is one of the consequences of the presence of Shia militias.
For engineer Muaamar Sameer Saadoon, who runs a company that imports and installs electrical appliances, “It feels like a new occupation.”
The Islamic State (aka Daesh in Arabic) “demanded a percentage on the earnings of companies like mine,” about “ten percent. Now, we have to pay 14 to 15 percent to the militias.”
Nothing gets through militia checkpoints without submitting to the extortion racket, which explains the long queues at petrol stations. Instead of staying in the city, fuel is loaded onto lorries bound for Iran or Iraqi Kurdistan for resale.
Brigade 30, one of the most dangerous units, is made up ethnic Shia Shabak, and monopolises the scrap metal business.
Numbering around a quarter million, the Shabak used to live in relative peace in the Nineveh plain and Mosul. After the liberation, they stayed on in the city to help the police and army protect Sunni areas. That is how, from a minority group, they turned into a powerful player.
Complaining is not possible and could get you kidnapped, or like the owner of the Abu Leila restaurant, in the western sector, become the target of a bomb attack for not paying protection money. After the blast, the eatery never reopened.
Another source of income for the militias is government reconstruction funds, which end up in their pockets rather than for the city’s revival.
Only international NGOs and foreign funding are involved in this work, but “everyone knows even they have to pay a percentage of their aid money to the militias,” Saadoon said.
For many Sunnis, the militias are also a symbol of Iranian power in Iraq and don’t shy away from rubbing the locals the wrong way.
“Provocation, pure and simple,” is how young politician Abdullah al-Nujaifi calls it. “Now we also have a Khomeini School! As a result, people are feeling more and more repressed. It’s as if they are no longer living in their own country.”
Chaldean Church leaders in Mosul and the Nineveh plain had warned in the past about the danger of Shia militia presence in the north, which also represent a "threat" to the future of Christians.
They too, in fact, have ended up in the Shabak’s crosshairs, with increasing threats, thefts, sexual attacks and violence.
Shia militias are slowing down Mosul’s recovery. Amid economic woes and unresolved tensions, the city is struggling to revive its cultural, social and religious life.
Still things are happening. One event marking this renaissance came last September when the Chaldean archbishopric reopened, an event celebrated by Christians of all denominations.
The visit by Pope Francis in March 2020 also provided the people of Mosul with an opportunity to “heal the many wounds" of the past, for Christians but also and above all Muslims.
A few weeks later, Mosul hosted a women's cycling race in the streets of the old city, drawing scores of young people, 15 to 30, from different faiths and dressed in varied ways, some cyclists with a veil, others without it.
Just a few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable under the Islamic State, which beheaded a boy just for listening to Western music.